Why Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde deserves more credit
Eleven points clear atop La Liga, holding a slim advantage over Valencia in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals and safely into the Champions League last-16, it is hard to imagine that this was a campaign that started in a state of crisis for Barcelona.
Yet cast your mind back to August, when Ligue 1 giants Paris Saint-Germain shocked the footballing world by breaking the world transfer fee by activating Neymar's release clause, signing him from a seemingly ill-prepared club in the process.
The Catalans were promptly forced to overspend on Ousmane Dembélé and when the young winger sustained a serious hamstring tear so early into the new season, they had no real replacement available to take his place.
Perhaps worst of all, there was Lionel Messi's reported indecision over a new contract extension. Even if there was always a sense he would commit his future to the club, there was always a distinct feeling of unease before pen was finally put to paper in November.
Meanwhile title rivals Real Madrid - fresh from creating history by winning successive Champions League trophies - romped past them in the Spanish Super Cup, appearing set to continue their recent dominance on all fronts too.
While it's fallen to pieces over in the Bernabeú, Ernesto Valverde, who arrived in the summer as the tempest was brewing, has gone about quietly stitching together an impressive Barcelona side. Their numbers after 21 league fixtures stack up with some of the all-time greats.
So far, Barcelona have only dropped six points and conceded a meagre 10 league goals. The only team left within Europe's top five leagues who are still undefeated, there will be few people who agree with Zinedine Zidane's recent comments when arguing that the title race still is not yet over.
"We have to think the league isn't over," the Frenchman stated. As far as he's concerned, Real should be focusing on securing a place in the top four - avoiding the embarrassment of missing next year's UEFA Champions League completely.
Messi the fulcrum
Valverde has outshone all managerial counterparts in recent months, although it obviously helps that a certain Lionel Messi has managed to maintain an outrageous level of form that no-one, including Cristiano Ronaldo, has been able to match. With that being said, credit still must go to the former Athletic Bilbao boss for piecing together a title-winning side that just six months ago, was given no chance by many.
Utilising Messi's brilliance has paid dividends. Responding to Neymar's absence, he has put his faith in the Argentine and made him the undoubted fulcrum of the team while doing so.
While some of their gung-ho attacking football previously may have been lost, it has simply been a pragmatic response to the players from their coach. With 59 goals scored in La Liga this term - 16 more than any other side - they cannot even be considered close to boring in their approach to matches, which remains highly technical yet also more calculated.
"He said what he wanted when he arrived and we've adapted," Messi told beIN Sports on Valverde's arrival. "We became strong defensively and we have players of high quality further forward who can win matches."
While there has been a greater focus on individualism in an attacking sense, a departure from the ‘pure’ Barcelona team of Pep Guardiola, so too has the absolute obsession with possession football that was such a hallmark of the Camp Nou side for so long.
Different playing styles proving effective
In the 3-0 Clasico victory against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on December 23, Barca were happy to allow their opponents to boss possession, while it was still a level playing field. The Catalans picked their opponents off brilliantly then showed their technical brilliance in the closing stages as their rivals became ragged.
No longer are they deemed one dimensional. Against Zidane’s men, they were happy to play in a more passive manner, yet the DNA that allows them to press their opponents incessantly also remains.
It’s still Barcelona, just not quite as we know them.
This team is no longer simply about the fabled front three of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, it has been forced to evolve into an altogether different beast. They might not be better, but there is no question that so far this season they have proven every bit as effective.
It may not be as special in its approach to the game, but it still packs a fearsome bite, as opponents all over Spain have discovered.
Espanyol await in Sunday’s derby, which Barca hope will push them 14 points clear of second-placed Atletíco Madrid at the top of the table, at least for a little while. Should they avoid defeat, it will represent the club’s longest ever unbeaten start to a season.
February has only just arrived, yet no-one doubts that they will win the league this term. Six months after selling Neymar, it is a quite staggering turnaround and their coach - over whom there were so many doubts in the summer - deserves immense credit for the position they currently find themselves in.